Ari Surdoval’s debut novel is a teenage fever dream of stunted ambition and enduring hope. Following the escapades of a group of adolescents in New England raised under the storm clouds of addiction and cyclical poverty, Double Nickels borrows both its title and themes from the Minutemen, weaving together a group of working class stories inspiring enough to imagine that beating the rigged game is possible.
I spoke to Surdoval recently about the inspiration for his characters, how his relationship to music shaped his life and work and what we can expect from him next.
EN: It strikes me that the novel is in many ways about cycles and the difficulty intrinsic to breaking them. In the specific instance of Double Nickels there are the explicit cycles of addiction and poverty, but also a deeper examination of the intrinsic psychological toll on all of those adjacent to those deprivations. Does that feel like a fair characterization?
AS: It does, yes. There are also the cycles of trauma that the characters desperately try to transcend. Trauma that is caused by the cycles of addiction and poverty, and trauma that causes it. And how it can be generational. Maybe what is most heart-wrenching and heartbreaking is how deeply they know it, and how hard they are trying, even at their most lost or stuck, to find a way out—of both the mazes they create and the mazes they are thrown into. They face horrific unfairness in ways that are tragic and heroic, and somehow manage to find sparks of hope, in moments of connection.
EN: Double Nickels is at least in part a coming of age story set in the 1980s. What informed your decision to write about that era in particular? The title alludes to the Minutemen and there are many references to the canonical outsider rock of that era: Ramones, Replacements, etc.?
AS: In some ways it draws from my own experience. I was that age at that time, and I grew up in a small town. And I remember the contrast between the materialism and gaudiness that was celebrated, and the grinding cruelty against working people and the poor. There are a lot of parallels to now. So it was a way to talk about that, like the Nina Simone quote, that “an artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” And the book is about transcending limits, transcending suffering, and freeing yourself, so it seemed right to set it during a time when there was so much materialism and consumerism and so little compassion.
Double Nickels refers to those limits, but it also definitely refers to Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen, and it is a reference to that era of music, which I loved and meant so much to me. And the book is a love story between these two outsiders who happen to meet, and I wanted to convey that incredible spark of recognition that happens, especially among kids, and music was such a huge part of that. Especially that music. It was so hard to get. It wasn’t just everywhere, especially not in a small town, so there was such a deep sense of connection when you found someone who liked it too.
EN: There is a decidedly a social-realist aspect to the novel. It reminds me of S.E. Hinton by way of Hubert Selby. Why do you find yourself attracted to grim realities rather than escapist fantasies?
AS: That’s amazing. I thought about S.E. Hinton when I was writing Double Nickels, and how much those books meant to me growing up. The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and That Was Then, This Is Now. Just that they were about working class kids and kids from small towns, kids who were lost and struggling. Ponyboy Curtis and Rusty James. And I thought the ending of The Outsiders was so cool, how she did that. I sent her a copy of Double Nickels. I don’t know if she ever got it.
And I like Selby a lot, the immediacy and intensity of his writing, what he does with structure and punctuation, his ability to just pull you closer and closer to pain. But I also really didn’t want Double Nickels to be lurid, to be some unrelenting, voyeuristic sideshow of poverty and addiction. Not that Selby does that, but a lot of people do, and I find it kind of disgusting and insulting. Poverty porn. There are some brutal parts in the story, but I always wanted it to be about compassion and empathy.
EN: It’s in some ways a vaguely self-defeating enterprise to talk about the working poor at a time when corporate interests work hard to avoid holding up a true mirror to late capitalism. Do you feel that way?
AS: Well it’s only financially and professionally self-defeating, I guess. But in terms of writing it, I think it is what focused and sustained it, and made me want to say something. George Orwell talks about it in Why I Write:
“My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
EN: What’s your next project?
AS: In terms of writing, that’s an easy answer. I just want to write more.
I am very proud and grateful to be an independent writer. The tools available to writers now are incredible, so I feel lucky to be a writer at this time, and to be able to use them. That whole publishing process was a really powerful and gratifying experience, and in some ways it is as meaningful to me as the actual writing.
I don’t love promoting it, though. But I seem to have stumbled into this way that is like half Blanche DuBois, half fan mail. It is pretty simple, but at least it is sincere. I have just reached out to people I actually respect and admire—writers and artists and critics I like, people who have influenced or inspired me and asked if I can send them a copy. And the responses have been so humbling. Just the ability to have given them something, to have something to give, has been a huge thing for me. But the responses—and the people who have responded—have just blown my mind.
Sometimes I get an email and I just stare at it and can’t believe what I am seeing. Or the emails or reviews where people are just so moved by the story, who tell me it helped them deal with their own things they have been through. I had a friend who hadn’t read a book in 20 years before he read Double Nickels and he loved it. I have people tell me they read it twice in a row, or finished it and immediately bought a copy for someone. All that means the world to me. That’s how the book is getting out there, how it is finding an audience. And it is slow and there’s no money in it, but it is beyond any kind of success I could ever have imagined.